Retconning established comic characters to be somehow different from their canonical versions whether in comics or translated to movies and TV is a practice that divides nerds mostly into opppsing sides that are either for or against it. I’d like to set aside the most often cited argument of simply creating new characters instead of tinkering with established ones to focus on the style and content of a recent retcon with some historical/ social context.
Obviously the character in question is Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern who first appeared 80 years ago in All American Comics #16, cover dated July, 1940. Artist Martin Nodell came up with the basic concepts for Green Lantern after a meeting with editor Sheldon Mayer. In turn, Mayer enlisted Bill Finger to write scripts. Green Lantern proved to be one of the more popular superheroes of the Golden Age with a strip in the monthly All American, a solo title, and appearances in the Justice Society.
For the sake of not boring you, dear reader, at least right away, I’ll assume you already know the reason why in 2011 at the outset of DC’s controversial Nu52 relaunch writer James Robinson reimagined Alan Scott to be a gay man who was on the verge of proposing to his boyfriend Sam on a train trip in the Earth 2 comic. If you don’t know, scroll down to the end of this piece and I’ll give you a quick summary.
James Tynion IV revisited the 1940 origin of Green Lantern with the opening story of the Green Lantern 80th Anniversary Special released on June 24th. Rather than simply retelling the origin Tynion approached it from a different angle and fleshes out the character of Jimmy who appears in a total of five panels in the original. In the first panel Jimmy tells Alan his concerns about a rival cut throat engineer named Dekker whose company lost the government bid to build the mountain spanning bridge before the train they’re riding crashes and kills everyone except Alan. Golden Age comics were big on bad guys and mostly devoid of any characterization beyond the most basic and that’s no slight on the creators since after all they were playing to their mostly grade school kid audience.
Was Jimmy an employee or partner in Alan Scott’s engineering company? Probably.
Were Jimmy and Alan friends? Likely.
Were Jimmy and Alan secretly in love? Yes!
While both modern stories preserve elements from Nodell and Finger’s story there is one difference between the two. Robinson’s take explicitly confirmed Alan Scott’s gay sexuality with a buzz worthy at the time on panel kiss and glimpse into Alan and Sam’s relationship before the fatal (and fateful) train wreck. Tynion goes the subtle route implying a relationship through a conversation between Alan and Jimmy’s mother Doris Henton after he unexpectedly appears at her rural home. Both approaches work in my opinion because they reflect the social standards of their times, but some readers were dissatisfied with the inferences. The concern is understandable when you factor in how often media has gay baited audiences and the rise in bigotry toward the LGBTQ community.
Before setting off on a meandering ramble there is one small item I’d like to point out. After eight decades Jimmy finally has a last name! Very often these walk on & walk off queer characters writers use to add some nuance usually have just first name, or sometimes not even that, which admittedly happens with straight characters too. Names do make a character somewhat more substantial though.
Now for the ramble. This is a good chance to bail if you haven’t already.
What was it like to be queer in America in 1940? On one hand it was really bleak and stark. It was certainly the love that dare not speak its name. Straight society, religion, and government said you were wrong, you were evil and going to hell unless you repented, and you could be arrested, and punished, and lose your job and your home after your name and address were published in a newspaper post-arrest. The possibility of blackmail lingered too. We’ll also never know the countless times people forced themselves to assimilate into straight culture with a sham marriage.
Despite all this queer people relatively flourished in cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco where they could feel safe in larger numbers compared to their contemporaries living in small towns and rural areas. In his book Gay New York George Chauncey documents the Bowery during the 1890s as being both a “haven” for marginalized queers and a “spectacle” to the public at large. Specifically Columbia Hall, also known as Paresis Hall, was designated as “the principal resort in New York for degenerates” where young men solicited other men for sex. Chauncey talks about larger establishments such as The Slide and Walhalla Hall and small neighborhood saloons that were referred to as “fairy places” where “fairies” and “normal men” often intermingled. The bar at the Sharon Hotel on Third Avenue above 14th Street was called “Cock Suckers Hall” because of its back room where young men sold their talented mouths to other men. Speakeasies welcomed queers and drag balls thrived in Harlem during its Renaissance. The once popular automats where people bought food and drinks from vending machines were wildly popular late night hang outs for queers though managers often called police to clear them out.
Media representation was likewise problematic. Depictions of gay men in film into the 1930s were relegated to the pansy or sissy role which made them humorous, flamboyant, and effeminate, which to clear, are not in and of themselves negative traits. The intent of the messaging is the issue: gay men could only only be laughed at and ridiculed. Several factors came together to make representation worse. The Supreme Court ruled that films did not have First Amendment protection while local governments banned “immoral” and “indecent” movies. Newspapers had field days covering celebrity scandals while churches threatened boycotts. And that’s how the Motion Picture Production Code, sometimes called the Hays Code, came about. The Code banned any “deviants” (code for queer) the pansy was replaced by villains and victims who committed crimes because of their sexuality. “Deviancy” being a crime meant the character would somehow be punished since the Code also stipulated that no one was above the law. If any of this seems familiar it’s probably because this section of the Hays Code influenced the Comics Code Authority rules when the CCA came into being in 1954, thanks to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and Senator Estes Kefauver’s sub committee on comic books.
Pornography existed but it was nothing like pornography today both in availability and content. The argument can be made that modern gay male pornography in the United States can be traced to the turn of the 20th century and the following decades with the rising interest in male bodybuilding. Admittedly, this stance avoids the work of European photographers such as Wilhelm Von Gloeden and Wilhelm von Pluschow. Photos of nude men including Eugen Sandow, considered the father of bodybuilding, began appearing in 1895. It seemed inevitable that human desire would combine photography and art with the printing press to produce magazines about bodybuilding, the male physique, and the “naturist” movement, often a code word for gay, that appealed to gay men. John Hernic became a pioneer in using male order as a means to discretely sell nude male photos from his Apollo Art Studios when he started placing ads in the back of Art Magazine in the 1920s and then in Strength and Health in the 1930s. Bob Mizer followed Henric’s example when he founded the Athletic Model Guild in 1945 until growing tension with these publishers led Mizer to create his own magazine, Physique Pictorial. The presence of Physique Pictorial on Los Angeles newsstands in 1954 caught the attention of conservative columnist Paul Coates who wrote the tabloid Los Angeles Mirror. Coates also had a local TV program called Confidential File which he used to draw attention to the growing presence of gay men in and around Los Angeles. The episode included footage of a Mattachine Society meeting and a glimpse into a gay bar. Coates closed by presenting a copy of Mizer’s magazine to his viewers. Coates continued his crusade by working with the PTA and followed the program with three newspaper columns railing against gay magazines on area newsstands. Coates’ efforts led to police intimidating newsstands selling Physique. Worse, Coates’ story led to Mizer being targeted in a sting operation and arrested by vice cops for possessing and distributing lewd photos.
A few episodes of Confidential File can be found on Youtube and in the Internet Archive but only this brief audio clip of the episode in question seems to be publicly available on the Internet. The audio clip is from a segment where Coates interviewed a gay man. Here’s a link to his episode on horror comics that fed off of and into Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent hysteria. George Putnam’s style and tone in the anti pornography film Perversion For Profit a decade later is a good match for the tone and style of Coate’s show. Cue it up to the 9 minute mark if you want to get right to his gay ranting but I promise you it’s all jaw dropping. Here’s part 2 if you want another 17 minutes to experience!
Another very real concern for Mizer and similar businesses came from being targeted and harassed by US Postal Inspectors. You might think Postal Inspectors sound quaint, maybe even laughable but they’re federal law enforcement agents who have investigative authority in criminal matters involving the Post Office. Inspectors intimidated and ruined countless people’s lives if they didn’t reveal names and information about other people they had correspondence with by mail in an effort to stamp out “obscenity” and “the spread of homosexuality”. Gay men buying photos and subscribing to magazines like Physique Pictorial celebrated when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Manual Enterprises, Inc v Day that imagery of nude or nearly nude men were not obscene though one imagines the losses and hardships of the men victimized by the Post Office lingered for years.
Other lifelines like LGBTQ organizations didn’t exist in the US in 1940 though one did briefly. The Society for Human Rights was established in Chicago by Henry Gerber in 1924. Gerber became inspired by German doctor Magnus Hirschfield and the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee he founded in Berlin in 1897. Gerber had trouble finding new members and funding but it was his arrest a year later that led to his disbanding the Society. The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis appeared in 1950 and 1955 respectively. Both organizations held regular meetings and published newsletters. Using the pen name Donald Webster Cory, Edward Sagarin published The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach in 1951. Sagarin also founded the Cory Book Service which catered to gay men via mailing lists. Sagarin was so progressive for his time that he opened a storefront called The Book Cellar in New York in 1953. Other mail order book companies followed.
The information mentioned above comes from three sources. Along with Chauncey’s book mentioned above there is Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist set in late 1890s New York. Carr’s books have been adapted for TV with season one airing in 2019 on TNT. A good part of the show involves characters whose lives and circumstances are intertwined with Columbia Hall and the like. We’ve seen one gay man in the incidental character of the toy store manager in the second episode of season two that began recently. Whether he returns or similar characters appear remains to be seen since the plot focuses on baby napping and the treatment of women, particularly of lower class. David K Johnson’s Buying Gay traces the evolution from bodybuilding magazines and mail order companies selling novels and erotic male photos led the way in creating a modern queer community. Spoiler alert: a lot of tension arose out of philosophical differences with openly political “homophile” magazines and organizations and gay male erotica companies in the 1950s so things weren’t as altruistic as you might imagine.
Examples like these from queer history expand my appreciation for the Alan Scott retcon. I think this development is a positive step in representation and hope that more appearances follow though I still love and miss the healthy and loving relationship as rare and brief as it was that Marc Andreyko wrote for Todd/ Obsidian and Damon Matthews. To not follow through on this will negate all the good this is and DC needs to step up its queer representation as it is and especially with Marvel making Hulkling the pivotal character in its big event for 2020.
“How Did We Get Here?” or a super condensed explanation of the convoluted history of Alan Scott and his eventually gay son.
In the decade following Green Lantern’s debut superheroes lost their popularity causing a significant number of them to fade only to reappear gradually with an updated Flash marking the start of the Silver Age and the introduction of multiple earths that led to the tradition of annual Justice League and Justice Society team ups. Then in the early 1980s Roy Thomas expanded on the Justice Society with and the introduction of the Infinity, Inc superheroes who were connected in different ways to the much older heroes. Enter Jade (Jenny Hayden) and Obsidian (Todd Rice), the adult kids of Green Lantern and his nemesis the Harlequin (aka Molly Maine). Flash forward about two decades after Crisis and Obsidian comes out in the pages of Manhunter, thanks to gay scribe Marc Andreyko who wrote him a happy relationship with a few obstacles because otherwise it’d make for boring comics. Then in 2011 DC jettisoned continuity once again with its controversial Nu52 relaunch. Writer James Robinson, who at times has been the center of controversy himself, made a decision to reimagine Alan Scott as a gay man in a relationship with Sam in the pages of Earth 2 as a way to make up for Obsidian being written out of the Nu52 timeline. Robinson intended for Green Lantern to take center stage in his reimagined JSA in the absence of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman who died while fighting Darkseid’s invading army. Robinson’s ideas weren’t realized due to his abrupt departure and the resolution to Sam’s murder was unsatisfying at best in my opinion. Andreyko brought back a version of Damon Matthews after he took over writing Batwoman following the departure of J H Williams III but Damon without Todd was never the same.